Note: This blog draws in part on my experiences and observations interviewing political figures, writers, and analysts for "The Campbell Conversations" on WRVO. To hear past interviews I refer to in these posts, please go to the show's website. The views expressed here are solely my own, and do not represent Syracuse University, the Campbell Institute, or the WRVO Stations.

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Friday, March 25, 2011

Getting What You Pay For? Reflections on the Budget, Part 2

Here's the second post on Governor Andrew Cuomo's budget speech that I promised the other day.

One of Cuomo's main arguments was that we do not get good value for our tax dollars.  To illustrate, he juxtaposed where we rank in terms of spending in various areas with where we rank in terms of performance in those areas.  One of the canards about New York he was keen to rebut was the notion that yes, our taxes are high, but we get great services and great public resources in exchange.  The numbers he cited were dramatic and disturbing, and can be found here in this video of a similar speech.

It actually turns out that things may be even worse than he says.  I've written about this in past posts and newspaper columns, but the figures are so surprising (at least to me) that they bear repeating. 

First the context:  Although across the Western World, our economies are different versions of the same thing—a system that relies on regulated markets, mixes private and public ownership, and provides social insurance through tax revenues—here in the U.S. we stand at a noticeable distance from the European pack, particularly in terms of our weaker public sector appetite.  Relative to our economy (and therefore our collective income) our government (taking into account all levels) is leaner, and overall, our taxes are lower.  This may be hard for some readers to believe, but it's true.  We look a lot different from countries like Italy, Norway, and France, and in these terms we keep company with Japan, Turkey, and South Korea.

But here's the rub for New Yorkers:  Those statistics are for the U.S. as a whole--in other words, they average across all the states.  But the state-to-state variation is significant.  When you break things down by state, and you look at how much resources, relative to the size of a particular state's economy (and therefore its collective income), government at the state and local level takes up, in 2009 New York surpassed all other states except Maine, and its government was considerably hungrier than other large states like Pennsylvania and California.  (I got these figures by request from Ian Pulsipher of the National Conference of State Legislatures, a distinctly non-partisan and well-respected group.)

Accounting for the state-to-state variations, New York begins to appear more like Britain than it does, say, Texas.  In fact, according to's 2008 international "Tax Misery" Index, a top-earning worker in New York City had the same overall tax burden as a similar worker in Berlin.  However, a top-earner in Texas sat comfortably alongside workers in Uzbekistan and Ireland--8 spots below Illinois, 15 spots below Britain, 20 spots below New York City, and 37 spots below Sweden.

And now here's the final and real rub for comparing New York to those other countries:  Where's the universal health insurance?  Where's the public transportation infrastructure?  The public day care?  The list goes on.

The governor has a point.

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